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The Lost City : Destiny's Address

December 17, 1995|Ralph Rugoff

"The past is a foreign country," novelist L.P. Hartley wrote. "They do things differently there." You could say the same for the Los Altos, a five-story apartment building from Wilshire Boulevard's glory days, only you were never quite sure whose past you were entering when you walked into the dim grandeur of its ballroom-like lobby. A coat of arms hung on the wall like a relic from a movie set, setting a tone that mixed Baroque Spain and 1920s Hollywood, when as rumor had it, William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies maintained a love nest there.

An aura of aristocratic decay added yet another element. When I arrived in 1990, the Los Altos was already Los Angeles' answer to Miss Havisham's. Throughout the building, piles of construction materials gathered dust where they'd been left a year earlier when the contractor walked off in the middle of extensive renovations. As an ensuing legal dispute dragged on, those piles took on the air of mummified remains, while half-painted hallways and partially carpeted stairs provided testimony to an offstage drama, a morality play about a landlord's overreaching ambition and Wilshire Boulevard's steady decline.

Elderly tenants passed away, and younger ones moved out. A core group crystallized, but we occupied only about 15 of the building's 70 apartments and, at night, the long corridors were eerily quiet, lined with doors guarding empty rooms. Your neighbor was likely to be someone else's memories, but at least this vanishing past had its chief curator, Clarence Greene a movie producer who'd been living in the Los Altos since the early 1960s, could recall the days when there'd been room service and live jazz bands had entertained dancers from the lobby's mezzanine.

Mr. Greene, as most residents deferred to him, spent the day pacing up and down the lobby, hands tucked in the front pockets of his safari jacket, pondering his next screenplay (the Oscar he'd won for "Pillow Talk" was sheathed in a green sock in his ramshackle living room). In his late 70s, he walked to keep his legs from stiffening, but he had an almost boyish charm when he invited you to accompany him on his snail-like peregrinations as he conjured a bygone Hollywood. Clarence still wanted some of that action, but it was as if the decline of the building had mirrored that of his career. His enduring wish, he said, was to remain in the Los Altos until he died.

If the lobby was Clarence's domain, the roof belonged to Phil Garner, an artist/inventor who has since reinvented himself as Philipa. When I'd go up for a nighttime cigarette, Phil would usually be lying down, staring at the stars and elaborating his vision of humanity's blissful hermaphroditic future. There were plenty of other characters roaming the halls, including a well-known Hollywood actor and a pair of elf-like Ukrainian ladies who spoke almost no English and had been mysteriously stranded in the building after World War II. They moved out the day of the riots, pushing shopping carts of belongings down Wilshire Boulevard, oblivious to the havoc raging on all sides.

Because there were so few tenants, each loss was duly noted. During its fall from grace, nobody remained in the Los Altos without having strong feelings about it, and whatever else you might think of your fellow residents, you knew you had that much in common. More than a few of us had ended up there after feeling personally beckoned by the building while driving by, not unlike the way you might see someone at a party and feel strangely certain that someday you were going to know them.

It seemed more like a destiny than an address--or perhaps it was simply a building you could have a relationship with. Like most romances, this one went through various phases before it eventually soured. For many of us, the difficulty was knowing the right time to leave.

My wife and I left about six months after the earthquake. By then, the Los Altos largely resembled an abandoned building, and homeless people in search of shelter had begun breaking in. Crime had always been a problem--residents were regularly held up at gunpoint--but now a sense of desolation clung to the place, augmented by Wilshire's own dereliction. On one side of the building stood Perino's, a fashionable eatery that had been closed for years, and on the other, a vacant lot, frequently used by outdoor homesteaders. Its "For Sale" sign was a futile gesture. No one was buying.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that the building's indomitable manager, Irene Milne, had finally departed, heading for her long-planned retirement in a Texas trailer home. It was like hearing that a captain had left her sinking ship. For years, Irene was the force who had kept things running, even when the landlord had declared bankruptcy and the city had threatened to cut off power and water. Without her, it's hard to imagine a long future for the three or four tenants who remain.

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